This house in LA provides an example of retaining an original wall, then building a much larger home. / PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
In 2015, Sharon Wampler and about 80 of her Bird Rock neighbors started out on a quest to clarify — and tighten — some of the city's rules governing so-called “McMansions,” oversized homes on undersized lots.
Three years later, where, and when, that quest will end remains in doubt.
The land-use “dragon” some Bird Rockers are trying to slay: The 50 percent rule in the San Diego municipal code allowing single-family home remodels to be exempt from costly and time- consuming Coastal Development Permits, as long as the builder keeps 50 percent-plus of the exterior walls of the existing home.
“Fifty percent of the front of our house is still the original walls,” said Wampler, a scientist with no previous land-use experience speaking on her own home remodel. “But now they're (developers) building around that, which has actually happened over the past five years because of the aggressive interpretation of that (50 percent) rule. That's what started this three-year journey.”
“That's the problem, the permissive (municipal) code,” said Diane Kane, Ph.D., an architectural history instructor enlisted to analyze the 50 percent rule, how it works and how it can be redefined.
Kane said her investigation into city documents showed the definition of the 50 percent rule is obscure.
“There's no date on it, no authorship, no attribution, ” Kane said. “Technically, it doesn't exist. The city council, or the public, never saw it. It was something developed internally (by the city).”
Kane said the 50 percent rule, as presently construed and interpreted, is a farce.
“It's not an addition, it's a completely new structure,” she said. “That creates a lot of heartburn because people have no idea what's going on. All of a sudden, a house is stripped to the bone, literally, and people are going, where does this come from? Something can be built too close to the property line. People are losing privacy. And there's absolutely no community review.”
Wampler and others lobbied local civic groups, an effort culminating in the creation of Citizens for Responsible Coastal Development (CCRD), an ad hoc committee formed in 2015 by the La Jolla Community Planning Association. Both groups are continuing to work to abolish La Jolla's 50 percent coastal exception rule, and replace it with their own “Incentive-based zoning” approval process.
CRCD’s “Incentive-based zoning” process would reduce the project applicant's floor area ratio (FAR) from .6 to .4 in La Jolla and Bird Rock.The applicant would then have to conform to CRCD’s list of design incentives to earn back their right to build their home more densely to the current .6 FAR allowed.
The floor area ratio is the relationship between the total amount of usable floor area that a building has, or has been permitted for the building, and the total area of the lot on which the building stands. A higher ratio indicates denser construction taking up a greater portion of its available lot. FARs in La Jolla have been contested for years, with community planners, using them to judge whether or not new homes or remodels are oversized and/or out of character in their surrounding neighborhoods.
Wampler and Kane said the land-use battle being waged by citizens to clean-up loopholes in city codes governing the allowable size of build-outs in residential areas is worth waging.
“If you really want to be America's finest city, then let's have a little bit of conscious development, just do it in a planned, respectful way,” said Wampler.
“We think this (incentive-based zoning) can be implemented with a (municipal) code update,” said Kane concluding, “Clearly the rules that have been used have not worked. That's why we're saying specific elements of the code need to be changed.”
Wampler said, with use of incentives discouraging overdevelopment, that builders will be able to get to the maximum FAR allowed, “But they're going to have to follow incentive-based rules, like push back the second story, or leave a view corridor,” she said.